Court on camera - should we televise trials?

The question of whether cameras have a place in the courtroom has been debated for well over a decade with US show trials such as that of OJ Simpson cited as a major reason why they should not. Fast forward to today and we alrady have accepted and allowed television cameras into the Supreme Court and parliamentary inquiries.

The real question has shifted from whether we should televise trials to which trials are appropriate for televising.

Pulicising the antisocial or drink or drug infused antics of the malfeasants who typically appear in magistrates courts on a Monday morning might compete with Jeremy Kyle or Oprah for ratings and voyeurism of the dysfunctional but adds little to the administration of justice or understanding of its place in society. Having fraudulent corporations, negligent bankers or corrupt politicians beamed to television screens across the country does however have its place.

In delivering the Judicial Studies Board Annual Lecture for 2011 this week, Master of the Rolls, Lord Neuberger has - as part of his theme of 'Open justice unbound' - said that there is a place for cameras in court, subject to proper safeguards and selectiveness over the type of trial being broadcast. He recognised that if the legal system and its judiciary wished to increase engagement and confidence in its activities then insofar as there is a "wish to increase public confidence in the justice system, transparency and engagement, there is undoubtedly something to be said for televising some hearings, provided that there were proper safeguards to ensure that this increased access did not undermine the proper administration of justice.."

He did point out that although the televising of Supreme Court deliberations has been allowed broadcasters have not rushed to stream the proceedings across their channels:
"The Supreme Court televises its hearings in its impressively renovated building. As yet,though, there appears to have been little appetite for broadcasters to televise its hearings. I can see that there may not, from a commercial perspective, be an interest to do so. But from a public interest perspective might there not be an argument now for its hearings, and some hearings of the Court of Appeal, being televised on some equivalent of the Parliament Channel, or via the BBC iPlayer. Brazil’s Federal Supreme Tribunal now has its own TV channel. The channel, TV Justi├ža, does not only show recordings of its sessions, but it also shows a whole host of educational programmes about the justice system."

The problem is that as it has always been with print media, the more slacious, shocking or controversial the case, the hgher the chance that it would be headline material. So too for broadcasters, televising hours of procedural wranglings or counsel's deliberations on finer points of the law are not going to push up ratings or demystify the justice system. The viewers will want to see cameras zooming in on the witness who buckles, the killer question from counsel, the celebrity suspect etc and so it is that which will attract the cameras.

As Lord Neuberger suggests, maybe it will require a dedicated High Court or Supreme Court channel along the lines of the Parliament Channel to service the needs of open justice through the medium of television. But to the extent that this may satisfy the public interest in a democratic sense it will not satisfy the interest of the public and accompanying journalistic interest in covering the scandals, horror stories, corrruption, crime and strife that have traditionally fed the front pages.

It is great that the judiciary are on board, the challenge is to find a way of embracing their engagement in a resposible yet engaging manner that can be package up as commercially viable TV without succumbing to sensational sell-outs.

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